My house and garden back into a strip of Florida forest, home to red-tailed hawks, armadillos and opossums, the occasional raccoon, snakes, one great horned owl, and countless gray squirrels. With live oaks in front of the house and pine trees shading the back patio there is always a squirrel in sight, feeding on acorns or pine nuts, or traveling from tree to tree in the overhead canopy. This being Florida, the squirrels do not hibernate in winter. If natural food gets a bit scarce, they can – and do – raid a bird feeder for corn and sunflower seeds.
We all lived together peacefully, even though I am not particularly fond of these members of the rat family. “Live and let live” is one of my mottoes. Then I started feeding the little beasts. This was definitely not a smart thing to do.
I did not do this with kindness as a motive. I simply wanted some entertainment for my dog, Bronco. Last summer I had the back patio enclosed with a board and post fence so he could enjoy life outdoors without being on a tie-out. At the same time everything was smartened up and a lanai built as a place to raise orchids and other tropical plants.
As Bronco seemed to be bored on the patio, I installed a squirrel feeder on a nearby tree trunk, thinking he would enjoy watching the squirrels scamper up and down for food. I laid in a supply of squirrel goodies: dried ears of corn, raw peanuts in the shell, and sunflower seeds. All of this went into a waterproof shop cabinet mounted on the back wall of the house.
The first thing the furry little monsters did was to chew through the door of the cabinet. They quickly took possession of the patio. Hanging flower baskets became burial grounds for nuts and seeds. Orchids and jade plants became squirrel snacks.
As young squirrels matured and set up independent housekeeping, they chose backyard trees for their nests. Squirrels line their nests with soft foliage. In this case they used the leaves of three recently-planted hibiscus bushes. Within two days the bushes were not only stripped of all foliage, the tender tip of every branch was snapped off.
“Enough is enough” is another of my mottoes. I bought a Havahart ® cage. For two months I busily trapped squirrels. Prime trapping time is early morning hours or just at sunset. This is when squirrels forage for food. Once trapped, a squirrel can be relocated.
In two months I caught over fifty squirrels. A relocated squirrel will find its way back to its territory unless it is released at a distance of at least five miles. I have repopulated most of my community, releasing squirrels in parks and other public areas, brushy wasteland, any place where there is a tree for the squirrel to run to once the cage door is opened.
Squirrels are fairly nonchalant about being captured. If they spend an hour or so in the cage they will usually finish eating whatever food has lured them into the trap. With the exception of the trap door, a solid piece of metal, the cage is made of one-inch square wire mesh. If a squirrel is in the cage longer than an hour it will occupy itself by reaching through the mesh and uprooting all the grass on which the cage rests. To avoid bare patches in the lawn, it is best to remove the cage quickly.
Yesterday I noticed four squirrels chasing each other up and down a linden tree in front of the house. Once more, it was time to trim the roster of residents. The trap was put out after dark. Squirrels are smart critters. Just to be on the safe side, it is best not to let them see the trap being baited.
This morning when I returned from taking Bronco for his walk the cage was still open. No matter, maybe there would be a catch later in the day. Leaving the house again at eight o'clock, I returned within the hour. As I came up the drive I could see that the solid door was at a slant, meaning the trap had been sprung.
Normally a squirrel will become agitated and start leaping around in the cage when someone approaches. If there is no movement it means that the cage is empty, usually because a squirrel has jumped on the outside of the cage and triggered the trap action.
Nothing was moving in the cage as I walked across the lawn. As I got closer I heard a shriek and looked up to see a red-tailed hawk sitting on a branch of the linden tree. It shrieked again as I shortened the distance between us but it stayed on the branch, which was unusual.
Having a hawk so close to the house was unusual in itself.
Then I noticed that there was a squirrel in the cage. It had wedged itself into the triangular space between the slanting door and the floor of the cage, as if hiding. The squirrel was dead, without a mark on it.
Did the squirrel die of fright? Did the hawk land on top of the cage and try to get the squirrel? I’m not about to lose any sleep over it, but all day I’ve been wondering what it would be like to be in a cage and have a hawk sitting on the wire mesh just over my head.